There were a few things that I decided I would like to do when I knew that we were going to return to Siem Reap.
The first thing was to see Angkor Wat from the air on the Angkor Balloon.
The second was a little trickier – two options, either a trip to Battambang or head in the other direction to see Preah Vihear.
Two completely different trips – one to another Cambodian city, the other to another ancient temple. Both trips that I had been dying to take for a long time.
But we could only fit in one…
After weighing up the pros and cons, we decided a trip to Preah Vihear was the one to go for. Preah Vihear is a Khmer temple which dates back to the 11th century. It is situated in the north of Cambodia, on top of a 525 metre cliff in the Dângrêk Mountains which border Thailand. After years of it being off limits due to war and an ownership dispute between Cambodia and Thailand, it is now starting to open up and we thought we should seize the opportunity to see it now whilst it’s still relatively unexplored.
The difficulty with Preah Vihear was how to get there. We could either, travel up to a nearby town (Sra Em, the nearest town to the temple), stay overnight and see Preah Vihear that way. Or we could do it in a day trip (a very long day trip!). The first option would mean a bit more travelling and moving around, the second option would mean having a very long (and expensive) day out, but would mean that we didn’t have to travel around too much overall.
I am not ordinarily against moving around when we go on these trips, but this time, I wanted to be somewhat still – or at least as still as we can be!
We made the decision once we had arrived in Siem Reap. After doing a few days at Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples just outside of the city, we decided the best option would be to do the day trip and we would then have the rest of the week to relax and potter around.
We asked at our guesthouse about arranging a taxi and between them and Mr Why Not (the best tuk-tuk driver in Siem Reap!), we booked a car to take us on the round trip the following day. It cost us a hefty US$120, but that was what I was expecting, so it wasn’t a surprise.
We arranged a 6.30am pick-up the following morning…I was not looking forward to that prospect, but just kept reminding myself it was all in a good cause!
So, the morning rolled around and I dragged myself out of bed ready for the long day ahead. We were picked up promptly and were on our way.
As we made our way out of Siem Reap we were greeted by the rising sun, it was gorgeous and set the tone for the rest of our outing.
The journey north to Preah Vihear temple is a long one – it took us just over three hours to drive there. It’s therefore a must to leave as early as possible if travelling from Siem Reap and in hindsight we probably should have left at 6am.
Our guesthouse left us a takeaway breakfast in the fridge so we could grab that for munching on the way. However, since I don’t eat bread (I’m one of those gluten-free people!), my partner got to gorge on two baguettes, whilst I had a chocolate bar for breakfast! Not the healthiest start but never mind!
After a long three and a quarter hours journey, we finally arrived at the base of the mountains at 9.45am with much relief. We unfolded ourselves from the car, glad of being able to stretch our legs.
The set up was a lot more organised than I had envisaged it would be. There was a long building on one side of the car park and our driver pointed at it, saying we must buy a ticket.
We wandered over to a window and bought two tickets for the temple. We were then ushered down to another window where we had to pay for our transportation up the mountain (you have to hire transport, you can’t just drive up there yourself).
The road to the top of the mountain is steep…very steep towards the top… In order to get up there you have the option of either hopping on the back of a motorcycle (the cheapest option at $5) or a pick up truck (more expensive at $25, but that is for the whole truck). As I am not one for bikes, particularly ones that are going up and down a very windy and steep mountain road, it was a no-brainer and we paid the $25 for the pick up truck.
We were allocated truck number 13 (a bad omen?!), which we jumped into and off we went!
I was so excited to finally be there and to lay eyes on this temple that had been in my mind for a good few years.
The journey up the mountain was definitely an experience! The road is now paved so I imagine it’s a lot easier than it used to be to get up there, but it was still a little hair raising in places. It is a very windy road with lots of twists and turns and as you near the top, it gets VERY steep. The truck bumps up the last section very slowly and you definitely need to cling on, as you are sitting in the back…but the views are amazing!!
We finally arrived at the ‘car park’ a little shaken and stirred but excited! And wow, it was hot, hot, hot up there! For some reason I had thought that it would cooler as we were higher up, but that was not the case!
As we walked across the scorching rock towards the temple, my first impression was… this is not how I imagined it! It was a lot sparser than I thought it would be, I imagined the temple to be shrouded in more undergrowth and trees and feel a bit more… tomb raider like I suppose, but it was quite exposed. But then it was slap bang in the middle of the dry season, so I shouldn’t have been so surprised. It may look very different in the wet season!
We walked towards it, already sweating and we hadn’t even started exploring yet. I was so glad I had my hat!
There were a few groups around, it was actually busier than I thought it would be, but it was by no means overrun.
We headed towards the north end of the temple to begin our explorations. Preah Vihear spans north to south in a straight line. Starting at the north end you are faced with a very long avenue which takes you to the first sanctuary and then onwards through the temple.
Walking down that avenue was hard work as the sun beat down on us. But it was all worth while as we made our upwards through each sanctuary.
Each sanctuary is lower than the next one, so you climb your way through the temple and it means that you can’t see what is waiting for you at the next section.
We neared the south end of the temple and I just couldn’t wait to get out and see the views. I think I was as excited about these as I was about seeing the temple itself!
You could see for miles in each direction and I was suitably impressed! And there were monkeys!
There were also soldiers… Preah Vihear has been the site of much history, both ancient and recent. It was a no go area for a long time due to ownership issues which were disputed between Thailand and Cambodia and of course war. For now the temple is safe to visit again, however there is still a military presence there and elsewhere in the region.
Because we were on a day trip and we wanted to see Koh Ker on the way back, we were limited to a couple of hours at Preah Vihear. We managed to stick to that (just!) and were only 15 mins late descending the mountain.
We had to wander back to the car park and find our driver (no.13!) who would take us back down the very steep road…that was a different experience altogether!
We made it down in one piece and found our car and driver and then it was on to the next stop – Koh Ker! This temple complex deserves a whole post all to itself so I won’t go into detail here, apart from saying, it turned out to be one of my favourites!
Visiting Preah Vihear was a definite highlight, although I did find myself not being quite as blown away by it as I thought I would be. I’m not sure why this was, as it is a truly spectacular temple in a spectacular setting! I mean it’s built on top of a mountain, that’s extraordinary in itself!! I suspect that I had built it up so much in my mind that the reality was never going to live up to my expectations… and I was very tired that day, so that probably didn’t help!
However, having said that, I am still so glad that we made the effort to visit and that I have now seen it with my own eyes! That was a bucket list item and I have to pinch myself to remind myself that I was actually there. If you can get there I would highly recommend that you see it with your own eyes too!
Driver and car: $120 total (a one day trip: Siem Reap – Preah Vihear – Koh Ker – Siem Reap)
Entrance fee: $10 each
Preah Vihear transport up the mountain: $25 total (although can be done for $5 each if you opt for the motorcyle)
Koh Ker: entrance fee: $10 each
Total cost each: $92.5
It is a long day trip – we left at 6.30am and got back to Siem Reap at 6.45pm. We spent a couple of hours at each temple and the rest of the time we were in the car. Take drinks and snacks! It’s long but definitely worth it!